Mental clarity means making fast connections, remembering information accurately and recalling it promptly. Whether it’s losing your car keys for the fourth time or your frustration in learning a new software system at work, most people would appreciate greater mental clarity.
A variety of factors, from age and diet to the amount you sleep can cause a “mental fog.” This vague term describes a general state of confusion, poor concentration and slow processing speed. Among the factors responsible for such a state of mental confusion is nutrition. The concept of “brain food” is available on the cover of any health or fitness magazine. A concept you see much less frequently, however, is “brain-damaging food.”
Preservatives, Additives and Food Coloring Dye
To maximize the effects of your mental clarity, abstain from eating processed foods. Not only do processed foods offer less nutrition, they also contain dyes and preservatives that can affect your cognitive function and cause cloudy thinking. Tartrazine, for example, is a commonly used food dye that gives processed foods a yellow, green or blue shade. According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Food Science, rats fed a daily dose of tartrazine suffered learning impairments and poor memory. The bottom line is that your brain and body have no productive use for food coloring or preservatives of any kind.
Deli meats and cold cuts are loaded with extra sodium and unhealthful preservatives like nitrates and other preservatives that can affect the way your brain functions. Processed meat may also contain sugar, avoid these like the plague. Choose lean, organic meats and make your own slices at home.
Sugar and Sluggish Thinking
When it comes to clouding your mental clarity, refined sugars, carbohydrates and processed foods are among the primary culprits.
In 2011, a study conducted at Macquarie University in Australia, and published in Behavioral Neuroscience found that a diet high in refined sugar lowered rats’ performance on memory-related tasks. Scientists concluded this was because sugar impaired the section of the brain responsible for memory and recall, known as the hippocampus. To add insult to injury, rats eating a diet high in refined sugars also felt less full and were more likely to eat, regardless of the calories in their diet. In other words, a diet rich in refined sugars causes sluggish thinking and makes you more likely to overeat.
Refined vs. Complex Carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates come from grain that’s been processed extensively and stripped of all nutrients and fiber. When you eat unrefined carbohydrates, such as quinoa (a whole grain), your body spends time digesting and absorbing the vitamins, fiber and minerals. This slow digestion time releases glucose gradually and gently into your bloodstream, instead of through a startling rush all at once. Extending the release of glucose into your bloodstream is what stabilizes your blood sugar and gives you sustained energy. Stable blood sugar levels means a steady flow of glucose to the brain, when the brain has a steady flow of nutrients it can think clearly and work optimally.
Without nutrients or fiber, refined carbohydrates digest quickly. In addition to spiking your blood sugar, this fast digestion leaves you feeling unsatisfied and undernourished, regardless of how many calories you’ve eaten. The blood sugar level drop after eating refined carbohydrates and sugars is often accompanied by shakiness, inability to focus, headaches and other signals that is your body’s way of telling you it needs something more substantial. Typical sources of refined carbohydrates in Americans’ diet include bread, cereal, pasta and white rice. Excluding these and other refined and processed food removes barriers to your mental clarity.
Removing Refined Sugars
Refined sugar appears under so many different names that it makes removing this brain-clouding ingredient challenging, but not impossible. White table sugar is the most widely recognized refined sugar, but it’s not the most eaten.
A staggering 60 percent of the refined sugar Americans consume isn’t in cookies or candy, it’s from manufactured and processed foods like lunch meats, peanut butter, wheat bread and soup. Just one tablespoon of ketchup includes an entire teaspoon of sugar. Even if you’re scanning the ingredient labels religiously, refined sugar is sneakier than you think. Sucrose, dextrose maltose, corn syrup and glucose are all names for different types of the refined sugars used in processed foods. Even agave nectar, touted as the new “healthy” sweetener is nothing more than refined sugar processed in a way similar to high fructose corn syrup.
Refined Carbohydrates- Discard any food containing refined carbohydrates. Remember, this includes not only white bread and cookies, but also most cold cereals, crackers, pretzels, granola bars and anything with white rice or noodles.
Check the ingredient list if you’re unsure and ditch anything with flour, sugar or corn syrup. Many people are also sensitive to gluten and even if you don’t consider yourself gluten intolerant, excluding it from your diet can offer improvements in your health and mental state. Anxiety is often relieved when gluten containing foods are eliminated.
Hidden Sugars- The ice cream and box of cookies are out, but so are many other sweetened foods like yogurt, fruit preserves and barbecue sauce. Check the ingredient list for anything ending in “ose” such as sucrose, maltose or fructose.
Note- many organic foods get their sweet taste from unrefined sugars, such as molasses, honey and maple syrup. While these naturally sweet alternatives contain more nutrients than their refined cousins, they’re still simple sugars that will spike your blood sugar and can intensify your craving for other types of sugar.
We’ve talked about what foods to avoid, now let’s look at foods that feed the brain and are known to increase brain function and health. Adopting a diet of nutrient-rich whole foods infuses your brain with powerful, and much needed nourishment.
Healthy fats- provide brain-boosting fatty acids. The brain is composed of mostly fat and water. Eating a little bit of healthy fat at each meal, particularly breakfast, extends your digestion time and encourages fullness. For example, enjoy a pat of butter with your oatmeal or vegetable omelet at breakfast or add a few slices of avocado to your tuna salad at lunch. Cook with unrefined expeller pressed olive oil, coconut oil or ghee instead of refined vegetable oils or margarine. Every brain cell has a cell membrane that is composed of fat so it is essential that you feed your brain healthy quality fats. Kids with ADHD often find when sugar is removed and omega-3 rich foods like fish and nuts are incorporated along with protein and vegetables, their symptoms improve dramatically.
Coconut oil- is packed with ketones, a super nutrient that fuels your brain like a protein shake fuels your muscles. Some scientists believe the ketones found in coconuts can even stop or reverse degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. Unrefined coconut oil is the best nutrient source of ketones. Avoid any food containing “hydrogenated” coconut oil, as this indicates it has been processed or refined.
Protein- A little bit of protein every two hours will do wonders for regulating blood sugar levels and giving the brain what it needs to make neurotransmitters. Organic animal proteins, fish, legumes, nuts and seeds are excellent quality proteins.
Water- Hydration is incredibly important for healthy brain function. A 2006 study at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging found that even mild dehydration, especially in children, impaired learning and cognitive ability. The best way to ensure proper hydration is by drinking at least 8 cups of plain water each day. The additives, sweeteners and dyes found in diet soda, coffee and other beverages will reduce your mental clarity just like they do in the processed foods mentioned above. Adding a lemon wedge will add more flavor as well as nutrients to your water and is very cleansing for the liver.
Because water is cleansing and detoxifying, drinking enough water decreases stagnation of wastes and increases circulation of nutrients to the brain, and just think, its free!
Legumes- also known as beans, peas and lentils are excellent nutrient-dense sources of fiber, protein and micronutrients like iron. Legumes are a complex carbohydrate that breaks down slowly, resulting in a steady flow of nutrients to the brain. Seeds make a great snack and offer brain-healthy essential fatty acids, particularly pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
Fruits and vegetables- are rich in phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals and fiber essential for a healthy brain and digestive system. A healthy digestive system aids the body’s ability to detoxify, which affects mental clarity directly.
Get a Good Nights Rest
Sleep is very important. To ensure you sleep well try the following sugestions;
-Reserve your bed for sleeping and sex only.
-Always go to bed at the same time and always get out of the bed at the same time.
-Take a hot shower or bath before bed to relax your muscles an slow down your mind before bed.
-If a chattering mind is problematic, take up meditation.
-Remove sugar, caffeine and alcohol.
-Make your room as dark as possible
-Eliminate as much outer noise as possible
-Eat a little cholesterol before bed to give your hormones what they need to induce sleep and keep you there. Warm milk before bed is taken for this reason. Adding a little nutmeg or ground poppy can help too.
-Read the article on this site about adrenal fatigue and see if any of it may pertain to you.
What to Expect
Because people aren’t familiar with what it feels like to feel good they sometimes reach for unhealthy food out of habit. Avoid this tendency. Sugar is addicting and will certainly call to you, resist it and reach for fruits and vegetables instead and get used to what it feels like to feel good and think clearly. It takes about 2 weeks for the sugar cravings to go away, and a few months to adapt to this new way of eating.
Any significant dietary change will cause some withdrawal-like symptoms. Headaches and other symptoms may be uncomfortable as you change your diet and eliminate sugar. This is because sugar is addicting and when you remove it you will most likely feel it. But the improvement in your mental clarity will encourage you to maintain your new diet.
Often improving diet can be cleansing, which can also cause nausea, irritability and fatigue. The greater the difference between the above food plan and your current diet, the more severe the initial side effects will be. Someone who starts every day with a large, sugary coffee and two donuts is going to experience much stronger sugar cravings initially than someone who has toast and eggs every morning.
Commit to the above food plan for at least two weeks and see how your body and brain feel. Keep a record of your mental state each day and note the clarity of your thinking. Many of my clients remark that they have never had more energy, vitality or mental clarity than when they chose to eliminate sugar and refined foods. Be gentle with yourself, and go at your own pace. Some people dive right in make severe changes all at once, some people implement things a little at a time. Either way, mental clarity will come.
Francis HM, Stevenson RJ. Higher reported saturated fat and refined sugar intake is associated with reduced hippocampal-dependent memory and sensitivity to interoceptive signals. Behavioral Neuroscience. December 2011; 125(6):943-55.
Gao Y, Li C, Shen J, Yin H, An X, Jin H. Effect of food azo dye tartrazine on learning and memory functions in mice and rats, and the possible mechanisms involved. Journal of Food Science. August 2011; 76(6):T125-9.
D’Anci KE, Constant F, Rosenberg IH. Hydration and cognitive function in children. Nutrition Review. October 2006; 64(10 Pt 1):457-64.
Family Education — Healthy Habits: Cut Back on Refined Sugars http://life.familyeducation.com/nutrition-and-diet/foods/36008.html